DURBAN – Under Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus the bench; or replacements, reserves and even “finishers” as they have been called by Eddie Jones in the past, have been very hit and miss. And, in this day and age, these players are integral to the success of a strong Test side, validating Jones’ labeling of them.
Test matches at the top have reached a point where a 15-man effort is simply not good enough, and it has to be a squad undertaking with those coming in later on in the match almost needing a different mindset and skill set. However, Erasmus’ tactics with his bench have not been particularly clear or solid.
Against the All Blacks at Loftus earlier this year, many will remember ruefully the beaming Faf de Klerk taking his leave with a fair chunk of the game to go as the bench was emptied by Erasmus, thinking that the game had been won.
It was not the case as the tactics of offloading the replacements for seemingly no other reason than to give them game time backfired badly.
However, last weekend against France, it was a very different story as not only did a replacement, in Bongi Mbonambi, score the match-winning try, but the likes of Francois Louw and Elton Jantjies were integral to that late Bok surge.
Tactically, these players were deployed with far more clinical care, and their impact was perfectly calculated. Louw was fresh and destructive at the breakdown where the heavier French forwards had tired during that facet of the match.
Jantjies was also sharp, silky and hard to handle under tiring legs on a heavy pitch.
There is a real case for Erasmus to try and build his bench for maximum impact, and use his replacements as tactical cavalry for these tight games in the northern hemisphere.
One example would be to have a player like Schalk Brits on the bench to really open things up at the end of a game - but that does of course cause selection issues with Mbonambi and Marx who have both proven their worth.
But, the point is that there are players who thrive coming on as a “finisher”.
When Tendai Mtawarira was in the squad with Steven Kitshoff still cutting his teeth, it made more sense for the Stormers man to come off as he is far lively in the loose, and to allow the rock-solid Sharks man to take a heavy battering for the majority of the game.
Erasmus has a few of these instances he can use, and should be using.
De Klerk and Embrose Papier is another one, as both players have a similar style, but fresh legs and new eyes can really shake things up from scrumhalf - the coach just needs to be braver with unleashing the Bulls man.
Jantjies has shown his value as a replacement, especially with Pollard moving to No 12 to add to the decision making in the backline, and Damian Willemse is almost the perfect impact player, especially as he still tries to find his feet at Test level.
There are more than enough “impact” players in the Bok squad, but those coming off the bench need to be utilised entirely as finishers, and that sort of belief should be instilled in them for it really is a 23-man effort.
If Erasmus can be more tactical with the implementation of these players, he will also be able to win a few more of the tighter games that have eluded him so far in his tenure.